During our recent tour of the Auditorium Theater in Chicago, the name of Mary Garden was mentioned several times. Mary Garden is a member of the Scottish American Hall of Fame located in North Riverside, Illinois. Some of the things Mr. Thomson wrote for her plaque are mentioned in this article.
Mary Garden was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, on February 20, 1877. Her father, Robert Davidson Garden was a prosperous engineer. Her mother was Mary Joss. The Joss family was prominent in government, the military and business. When she was six years old, her parents emigrated to America, settling in Chicopee, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut. In 1888 the family moved to Chicago where Mary learned to play the violin. In 1907 her father was the president of Harrolds Motor Car Co. that sold the Pierce-Arrow automobile. When her parents moved to Philadelphia, Mary stayed in Chicago to continue her education.
At age 12, she was playing concerts and singing for Sunday schools. She studied music and singing with Sarah Robinson Duff and attended Chicago’s public schools. She later studied piano and in 1896 went to Paris to further her musical education. A note on the Society page said: “Mrs. Sarah Robinson-Duff and Miss Mary Garden will sail for Europe on Saturday.” David Mayer and his wife took an interest in Mary and paid for her education both in Chicago and Paris.
In Paris she studied voice under some of the great contemporary teachers like Trabadello and Chevalier. On April 13, 1900, when the leading singer in Charpentier’s “Louise” suddenly became ill during a performance in the Opera Comique, Mary Garden was sent on stage as a substitute. She continued in the role for more than 100 performances. She went on to perform in Brussels and London.
She returned to the U.S. in 1907 to make her American debut in New York in “Thais.” Returning to Chicago in 1910, she appeared in the title role of “Salome” and until 1931 performed with the Chicago Grand Opera Company. Among her friends was George M. Pullman. It was said that Mr. Pullman “would break down and weep” when she sang “Annie Laurie.” When he was ill or troubled with insomnia he would send for Mary and her chaperon to come to his house and Mary Garden would sing to him. She first met Chicago society at a reception given by Mr. and Mrs. William J. Chalmers in 1910. Mrs. Chalmers was the daughter of William Pinkerton, the Scottish detective.
Miss Garden was warmly received in tours of American cities between 1949-1954. She also appeared at the Edinburgh Music Festival. Wherever she traveled, Mary Garden was always a sensation. She once attended a reception in New York City in a blue dress and one lady wrote to her friend: “It was really the most startling thing I ever saw, my dear. The bodice was cut so low in the back it reached the girdle, and in front - O, heavens! I should say it was a gasp. We all gasped when she came in.”
Mary Garden was a star in Chicago for more than twenty years (1910-1931) and in 1922 was made the managing director of the Chicago opera. It was a magnificent season but the deficit was more than a million dollars. It is said that Harold McCormick wrote a “check for a large chunk of it, and said it was a pleasure.” Financially, Mary Garden did quite well with property in Aberdeen, on the Rivera and in Corsica.
When she was 75 a reporter asked if “romance had ever come her way.” She replied it did, “her eyes twinkling. But I always put it in the scales and weighed it against art. It was always the same. Down went the gentlemen and up went the art.” She continued, “There were four men in my life, but, I’m not telling who they were. Anyway, I wouldn’t want any man trailing after me as Mr. Garden.”
She retired to Aberdeen and wrote her autobiography, “The Mary Garden Story.” She died in a nursing home, January 3, 1967 at the age of ninety. Her funeral service was held at the Aberdeen crematorium and was conducted by The Very Rev. Richard E. Kerrin of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral. Her lawyer reported that there were no close family members who could attend. Her only remaining sister, Madame Helen Garden, lived in southern France, was in her 80s and too frail to attend. I don’t know if there is a burial plot in Aberdeen. Perhaps someone can check for us. In 1927, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a story about her father with a picture. It reported that he lived in New York City and was wintering at Nassau. I could find no information about her mother as to her death or place of burial. It would be interesting to see Mary's will, and I once knew how to do that but have forgotten. I had to purchase a copy as I remember. Perhaps, someone can help.
I found enough newspaper quotes to make an entire blog. She once said that only lazy women married and that men were only interested in business. She explained her stubborn independence by saying, “We were all born in Aberdeen except Helen. We were Scots through and through, and that, I think, is what makes me so independent. She said: “So I live, and will die - a Scot.”
Mary Garden rest in peace. You are not forgotten.
Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society
The Scottish American History Club of Chicago will meet on May 5, 2012. Some of you know we celebrate birthdays at this meeting each year. This is a special birthday for me and I hope others will join us. There is a possibility that we will have a variety of pies shipped to us from Washington, D.C. You will be receiving more information about this soon. Watch for the email.